A River Of Tears: Happy Land
March 25, 1990 was the weekend of Punta Carnivale, which is the Honduran equivalent of Mardi Gras. Upstairs in the Happy Land bar, at about 2:30 AM this early Sunday morning, Julio Gonzalez, the Cuban Army deserter and ex-convict, was sitting with his ex-girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, 45. Julio recently lost his job as a warehouseman at a lamp factory in Queens. He was having a hard time paying his rent and was reduced to hustling on the streets of the South Bronx. At the bar, he drank beer and argued with Lydia who had been living with him on and off for six years. There were also words about Lydia's employment at the club, Julio wanted her to quit and she refused. Lydia didn't want much to do with Gonzalez anymore and refused to take him back. She told him that she had lots of potential boyfriends. Her family had already pressured her to end the relationship. But Julio persisted until Lydia finally tried to leave him at the bar. He grabbed her and a bouncer intervened. Somewhere around 3 AM, when the bouncer intervened. Julio became angrier.
"She's my woman, not yours!" he screamed, his fingers pointing at the bouncer and hands waving toward the ground.
The bouncer escorted Julio out of Happy Land, but he continued to argue in front of the club on Southern Boulevard while other patrons watched in amusement. "Regresare, ha cerrar esto!" (I will be back! I'll shut this place down!) Julio screamed as he walked off into the night. Assuming he went home, the bouncer returned to the party on the second floor.
Julio was enraged. He had no job, no money and no prospects. And the only stabilizing influence in his life, Lydia Feliciano, had just dumped him. He walked over to East Tremont and Crotona Parkway where the idea of burning Happy Land first came to him. He walked three blocks away to an Amoco gas station at 174th St. and Southern Boulevard On the way, he found an empty one gallon Blackhawk Hydraulic Jack Oil container.
Inside the gas station, Edward Porras, 23, a Lehman College freshman, was working his first day on the job. He tried to buy gas but Porras refused at first. Julio told him that his car broke down. Another man who was hanging around the station told the attendant that he knew Julio and that he was all right. Julio gave Porras one dollar and filled the container. Later when Porras found out he was the one who sold Gonzalez the gas, he said: "I don't know why this happened to me!" (Oliver, p. 9).
So, at about 3:30 AM, Julio approached East Tremont Avenue carrying his $1 worth of gasoline. He walked the 50 feet from the corner to the street level entrance to Happy Land. There was no one standing in the doorway at that time. All the customers who were usually found out front were upstairs drinking and dancing to the D.J. music. The building itself seemed to rock from the pulsating music. Gonzalez, full of beer and anger, his sense of machismo deeply wounded, spilled gasoline onto the floor and steps of the hallway. Several patrons who were at the top of the steps saw him in the shadows below, but thought nothing of it.
When he finished dumping the gas, he stepped back. Gonzalez lit two matches and threw them onto the floor. Immediately, the gas ignited. Volatility is highest when gasoline is first exposed to air. Even just a small amount will burst into what seems like an explosion if conditions are right. The fire quickly flamed up but remained confined inside the hallway area between two doors: the one that led to the street and the inside door that led upstairs. Gonzalez walked across the street and watched.
Inside Happy Land, Lydia Feliciano, seeing the flames behind the front door, began to scream "Fuego!" from the coat check area. Roberto Argueta, 23, who was at Happy Land since midnight, was picking up his coat and preparing to leave with Orbin Nunez Galea when he heard the yelling. He and his friends saw the flames fully engulf the entranceway. They thought they had no way out. But Lydia led them to a little used door on the north side of the club. When the terrified group reached the exit, they found that the outside metal gate was in the down position preventing them from opening the door. Frantically, one of the men managed to reach between the door and the gate and with great effort, raised the metal barrier up enough to open the door. They ran out onto Southern Boulevard, not realizing at the time how truly lucky they were.
On the second floor, the music was blasting and most in the crowd were unaware of what was happening. They had no way of knowing they had just minutes to live. The fire burned ferociously within the enclosed hallway as the inside door began to glow red from the heat. The D.J., Ruben Valladarez, saw what was happening and tried to warn the crowd. He could see the fire down below from the 2nd floor landing. He stopped the music, raised up the houselights and screamed to the crowd. Some people began to take notice and tried to exit. They crowded around the stairway to go down but were turned back by the smoke and the heat. The situation was becoming desperate. But Ruben decided to take his chances. He bounded down the steps, bypassing the partygoers, crawling between their legs and crashed through the inside door tumbling into the street below. He lay on the sidewalk, smoldering, his clothes burned off. He was badly injured but he survived.
Now that the door was opened, oxygen poured onto the fire and a powerful draft was created. The effect was very similar to a chimney. The fire exploded to life and charged up the wooden steps and into the room. The people on the top of the steps screamed and fled in terror. "Fuego! Fuego!" they screamed. Within seconds, a huge cloud of toxic, black smoke filled the staircase. As the blaze began to feed upon itself, the heat increased dramatically. The realization of a fire then became immediate to everyone. Soon the crowd on the dance floor was in a full panic as the black smoke poured unobstructed into the room. There were no windows in the 60' by 20' club. People instinctively fell to the floor face down where at least they could breathe if only for seconds. For some it was already too late. Those sitting at the tables had already inhaled the poison gasses and a few breaths of such a mixture is all it takes.
Smoke from this type of fire is loaded with carbon monoxide, aldehydes, cyanide and other gases emitted from burning wood and plastics. Blood cells absorb carbon monoxide readily, even faster than oxygen, causing immediate unconsciousness and imminent death. That is why statistically, most people in a fire die from smoke inhalation rather than burn injuries. In Happy Land, there was no ventilation on the second floor, which contributed to the high concentration of airborne poisons. What little air existed in the club was replaced by thick, acrid smoke containing a lethal combination of burning gases. It is frightening to see the speed at which this type of fire can travel. Death can come very, very fast. Dr. Yurta of the Medical Examiner's Office later said: "If you consider together carbon monoxide poisoning, oxygen deprivation and the effects of toxic substances in the smoke, death could in some cases be almost immediate, within a matter of seconds" (Angier, p. 1). Some patrons were later found sitting at their tables still clutching their drinks. Those closest to the stairwell died first, where 19 bodies were later found in a pile. Some had severe burns, but all died from smoke inhalation.
The fire roared like an express train out of control. People were screaming and fighting each other to get to the stairway. But the way out was fully engulfed by flames. In less than three minutes, the second floor was filled with dense, compacted smoke and lethal gases, which were concentrated to extremely high levels. By the dozens, the partygoers fell into unconsciousness, stumbling onto the chairs, tables and each other. The fire continued to burn unmercifully, sending superheated gases into the room, filling every nook and cranny, every corner, every square inch of space with poison smoke until the crying, the panic and the suffering stopped. Then, there was only silence. Silence but for the persistent sounds of reggae and Honduran calypso still playing in the background, a faint reminder of the brutality of life and the indiscriminate cruelty of death. In less time than it takes to read this chapter, eighty-seven people, along with their dreams, their hopes and a lost future that would never happen, lay dead on the floor under a sign that read Happy Land.